1800
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Note on Spenser's Archaisms.

The Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden, now first collected: with Notes and Illustrations; an Account of the Life and Writings of the Author, grounded on original and authentic Documents; and a Collection of his Letters.... By Edmond Malone, Esq.

Edmond Malone


Taking issue with Dryden's objection to Spenser's "obsolete language" in the Essay on Satire, Edmond Malone discriminates between the use of archaisms in Shepheardes Calender and in the Faerie Queene — and claims that this distinction was recognized by Ben Jonson and Alexander Pope. Edmond Malone's researches on Shakespeare made a great authority in such matters, yet some took strong exception, possibly from the mangled version of Malone's note printed in Todd's Works of Spenser.

Andrew Caldwell to Thomas Percy: "No writer I think ever took more pains to establish facts and detect errors: when he offers himself to the public it seems to be his aim to employ the utmost diligence of research, to be useful, and to merit favour; he tells me, however, he does not escape, and has already been attacked [by George Hardinge in "Essence of Malone," 1800] for the very circumstance that does him honour, and justifies a writer in coming forward to the public" 16 September 1800; in Nichols, Illustrations (1817-58) 8:26.

Thomas Campbell: "The mistaken opinion that Ben Jonson censured the antiquity of the diction in The Fairy Queen, has been corrected by Mr. Malone, who pronounces it to be exactly that of his contemporaries. His authority is weighty; still, however, without reviving the exploded error respecting Jonson's censure, one might imagine the difference of Spenser's style from that of Shakspeare's, whom he so shortly preceded, to indicate that his gothic subject and story made him lean towards words of the elder time. At all events, much of his expression is now become antiquated; though it is beautiful in its antiquity, and like the moss and ivy on some majestic building, covers the fabric of his language with romantic and venerable associations" Specimens of the British Poets (1845) lv.

Robert Southey: "Malone was wrong when he asserted that the language of the Faery Queen was that of the age in which Spenser lived; and Ben Jonson was not right when, saying that Spenser writ no language, he assigned as the cause for this, his 'affecting the Ancients.' The diction, or rather dialect, which Spenser constructed, was neither like that of his predecessors, nor of his contemporaries" The Doctor (1847) 383.

Peter Cunningham: "Surely the writers of his own age are better authorities than Malone, who read verbally not spiritually, and, emptying a common-place book of obsolete words, called upon us to see in separate examples what collectively did not exist. It is easy to find many of Spenser's Chaucerisms in his contemporaries, but they do not crowd and characterize their writings; they tincture, but they do not colour; they are there, but not for ever there" in Thomas Campbell, Specimens of the British Poets (1845) lvn.

On the subject of Spenser's archaisms and their subsequent use in English poetry, see the extended discussion in James Beattie's "Essay on Poetry and Music" in Essays (1776).




Because Ben Jonson, in his DISCOVERIES, objected to Spencer's obsolete language, with a reference undoubtedly to his PASTORALS, an indiscriminate charge, on this ground, has been brought against all his works; for which I conceive there is very little foundation. What Jonson has said of him, that, "in affecting the ancients, he wrote no language," may be applied with much more truth to Jonson's own compositions, than to those of Spencer. The language of THE FAERY QUEEN was the poetical language of the age in which he lived; and however obsolete it might appear to Dryden, was, I conceive, perfectly intelligible to every reader of poetry at the time of Queen Elizabeth, though THE SHEPHEARDS CALENDER was not even then understood without a commentary.

Pope has, in this respect, too implicitly followed our author:

Spencer himself affects the obsolete,
And Sydney's verse halts ill on Roman feet!

In a note, however, on the former line, he qualifies the assertion, by saying — "Particularly in his "Shepherd's Calendar," where he imitated the unequal measures, as well as the language, of Chaucer."


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